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The syntax of answers to polar questions in English and Swedish

Lookup NU author(s): Emeritus Professor Anders Holmberg



It is proposed that bare yes and no-answers to yes/no- questions are sentential expressions with the structure [yes/no Foc [IP ...[Pol x]...]], where the answer particle is merged in the spec of Focus in the CP-domain, and assigns a value, either affirmative or negative, to the polarity variable in IP. The IP has a polarity variable because it is inherited from the question. For the same reason the IP is typically elided, being identical to the IP of the question. The evidence comes primarily from answers to negative questions in English. The answering system in English is complex, with variation depending on the choice and interpretation of negation in the question. Three cases are distinguished: (a) The negation n’t is interpreted outside IP in the question, and yes affirms the positive alternative, (b) the negation (n’t or not) is interpreted inside IP but with sentential scope, and bare yes is not a well formed answer, and (c) the negation not is interpreted with vP-scope, and yes affirms the negative alternative. When the low negation reading is blocked, by using –n’t in the question, the reading where yes affirms the negation is not available. When the low reading is forced, by inserting a low adverb before the negation in the question, the reading where yes affirms the negation is the only one available. The English and Swedish answering systems are compared, the main difference being that Swedish lacks low negation. There are implications for the distinction between the truth-based (or agreement/disagreement-based) and the polarity-based answering systems. English exhibits both systems, depending on the choice and interpretation of the negation in the question.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Holmberg A

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Lingua

Year: 2013

Volume: 128

Pages: 31-50

Print publication date: 04/02/2013

Date deposited: 17/10/2012

ISSN (print): 0024-3841

ISSN (electronic): 1872-6135

Publisher: Elsevier BV


DOI: 10.1016/j.lingua.2012.10.018


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